Tuesday, 31 January 2012

HMS DAUNTLESS - The drums to war are still not beating...

The media have reacted with barely concealed glee today at the news that HMS DAUNTLESS is to deploy to the south Atlantic, and may visit the Falkland Islands. If confirmed, and if her programme goes ahead as intimated, then in the eyes of journalists the world over, this is clearly a great day for Britain as we slap down those truly dreadful Argentines who are demonstrating the audacity to suggest that territory owned by the UK is actually theirs. Clearly, sending a gunboat is the right thing to do.

The reality is that the RN has kept a permanent presence in the South Atlantic for 30 years - throughout this time there has always been an RN vessel, sometimes a major warship, sometimes an SSN, sometimes an OPV, but there has always been an RN presence in the region. Over this time, many new ships have entered service, and many of them have represented a step change in capability compared to their predecessors. This is an inevitable mark of progress, and in reality is nothing extraordinary - surely it would be more concerning if a new vessel entered service and didn't have a better level of capability than her predecessor?

The deployment of DAUNTLESS is highly unlikely to be a reaction to recent Argentine sabre rattling over the islands. As noted elsewhere on this forum, the planned deployment of ships occurs a long time in advance, and their programmes are minutely planned. It is highly likely that this began planning at least 12-18 months ago. The deployment of a T45 should not come as a surprise either - for many years the Falklands have been a great deployment for older T42s, as it allowed them to provide an area air defence capability in a relatively benign environment, but also a capability that was genuinely valuable, and meant that the T23s and 22Cs could go east of Suez.

The presence of a T45 merely continues this tradition, and does not in itself mark any change in the RNs capability in the region - an air defence destroyer is deploying on what has become a traditional air defence destroyer deployment. Yes, she is more capable than her predecessors, but that is by the by.

It is easy to read too much into the news, and this appears to be a classic case where the media are fixating on a routine changeover and deciding that its anything but routine. In reality, given the ships company are likely to have been aware of her programme for some time, had it been changed for any reason, then the same media which today are proclaiming that the ante is being upped in the region would probably have run headlines about the surrender to Argentina, and how disgraceful it was that the RN was backing down in the face of Argentine belligerence. As ever, this author is increasingly convinced that the media only want stories which portray either the drumbeat to war (as that sells papers), or which glorify national humiliation (as that sells papers). Anything which says otherwise wouldn't sell papers as it merely portrays cold hard facts. Oh for a return to Desmond Wettern.

There are two things which are worthy of greater concern than the media excitement. The first is the (in the authors strictly personal view) reprehensible way in which serving or retired members of the Naval Service are being quoted talking in language last seen in a 'commando' type comic about blowing the Argentines and every other south American airforce out the sky. Yes, the T45 is capable, but in a region which has a culture of machismo, and in which we fight a daily diplomatic battle to remain relevant, engaged and able to exert meaningful influence, is boasting about your ability to humiliate another country particularly sensible? It may play well in the Sun, but quotes like this get filed, get remembered and get dug out at inopportune moments when it may be necessary to whip a crowd into a frenzy. Crowing about our capability is a great way to equip your face for, but not with, egg in due course.

Personally, this author thinks that if serving members are found to have issued such ridiculous quotes to the media about T45, then they should be discouraged from speaking to the media again for a long time, if needs be by posting them to sites where internet access is a long term aspiration...

Secondly, the focus on the deployment to the FI takes away the fact that DAUNTLESS is likely to have a much wider programme of engagement and defence diplomacy which will do an immense amount to further the UK interests in the wider area. As ever, the UK media are incapable of seeing any story about the southern hemisphere without seeing it through the prism of 1982 redux; in reality it's likely that the presence of a T45 on whatever route she takes is likely to have a major, and immensely positive effect on the UK military reputation in the region, and could do an immense amount of good.

It's not that DAUNTLESS doesn't matter - it does. To conduct a routine deployment of a vessel 8000 miles from its home base, and sustain it for 6 months is something that very few navies can do. To do it as just one of several tasks is a means of showing how, despite its diminished size, the RN is one of the most capable maritime forces on the planet. But, it would be nice to reach the point where the UK can do a deployment of modern technology and not have the media try to start a war in order to see it used, just to make headlines for authors who don't know the difference between a DAUNTLESS or a DREADNOUGHT...

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The reality of capturing the Falkland Islands.

In earlier posts, the author has looked at the threat posed by Argentina to the Falkland Islands, and has suggested that if you ignore bellicose public statements, then the reality is that the islands are unlikely to be attacked by Argentina anytime soon.

In this final post on the subject, the intent is to explore some of the challenges surrounding any potential aggressor who wishes to attack the islands, and the sort of planning considerations that they need to consider when factoring in an attack. This is perhaps more timely given that yet another senior general (Sir Mike Jackson) has now claimed that if the islands were lost, then the UK could not recover them.

The challenge.
Any potential aggressor intending to occupy the Falklands needs to plan an assault around the following factors.

  1.   A remote airbase with good ground defences, and located a not inconsiderable   distance from the nearest credible port is the centre of gravity. 
  2.  The defending force is well equipped, and has considerable operational experience accrued over the last 30 years of occupying the terrain.
  3.  There are multiple defensive structures dispersed across the facility which would require potent munitions to deny. 
  4.  The facility is located some distance from international airlanes, and is unlikely  to see significant commercial air traffic. There are multiple satellite facilities to provide radar          coverage. There are air defences present, both air and ground based. 
  5.  There is a not inconsiderable maritime force located in the region, which is self sustaining and which may include an SSN.
  6.  Any attack has to be conducted in a manner which denies the defending force the  ability to reinforce, and must force a surrender of all occupying forces in under the  time it  would take to begin the reinforcement plans from the UK. 
  7. Any prolonged attack is going to lead to calls for talks, and be highly damaging to              international opinion against the aggressor. A swift fait acompli is essential to secure victory.

What this means is that any Argentine commander has to consider some immensely challenging tactical problems which in turn build in time delay. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and it is likely that any assault will encounter delays. Lets now examine these considerations in a little more depth.

When considering the defence of Mount Pleasant Airfield (MPA), commentators who have not been to the islands often make the mistake of assuming it is a small facility which could easily be overrun. The reality is somewhat different - it occupies a large area of ground, and has many highly dispersed facilities. While the main admin / life support hub is located in the near legendary 'death star' complex, the remainder of the facility is spread over a large geographically dispersed area. This means that any assault has to factor in the challenge of denying multiple facilities, many of which may be defendable, and in doing so while operating on unfamiliar terrain.
To even get close to the facility would require a significant march by troops. Not exhausting in itself, but it would probably require insertion of special forces by SSK - this limits the locations that landings can be conducted. The terrain of the islands is not particularly conducive to building shelters, and the islanders are exceptionally suspicious of outsiders. At best the Argentines could hope to land a small SF force (roughly 50 men), which then has to avoid detection while it marches to the airbase.

At this point, it then has to conduct an assault against a large, well defended facility which is designed for the purpose of being used to fight a defensive battle, and they have to do so against a garrison which outnumbers them 30-1. They have to complete this assault and force the British to a position where they wish to negotiate for surrender prior to the airfield commencing reinforcement flights.

The airfield was designed in the 1980s at the height of the cold war, and reflects much of the thinking at the time. It is likely that it could easily be repaired in the event of a denial attempt, and there is likely to be sufficient room to permit landings in the event of damage. It would take a very significant attack to deny the runway to the point where it could not be used further. Such an attack would require equipment and munitions accuracy beyond that currently possessed by Argentina.

Any air movements, either transports to land troops, or bomber attacks are going to be picked up by early warning radar stations. There will be significant warning of inbound air attacks, and there are plentiful defences in place to handle them. Any air attack has to conduct a long overwater transit, and then will only have seconds on station to deliver its munitions. It will be doing so against a force likely to be expecting it. Similarly, if transport aircraft were inbound, then if needs be, they need not even be shot down. The base could merely park sufficient vehicles across the runways at regular intervals so as to prevent the plane from landing. While some bad fiction writers postulate about the idea of an Entebbe style strike, the reality is that the planes have to land first to deliver this strike. Again, a failure to land first time and commence the assault will see the reinforcement plan kicking into action.  Also, given the lack of air traffic in the region, one would hope that it is unlikely that anyone would be fooled by an aircraft faking an SOS message and then landing to disgorge hundreds of armed troops.

The defensive structures of the base suggest that significant munitions would be required to deny some facilities. It is all very well landing 50 SF, but what happens when people deploy into trench and bunker complexes which require artillery or mortars to deny? This then requires the landing of further troops ashore with the ability to call in support fire - in turn this requires both the ability to find a beach where a surprise landing can be carried out and artillery moved into position to conduct fires missions, and to do so without being detected. Again, the author would suggest that the sighting of an Argentine battery digging in, would be enough to trigger the reinforcement plan activation.

The rule of thumb is that an assault against well dug in and defended troops, particularly well motivated ones, with reasonable supplies, is that it requires a ratio of 3-1 attackers to defenders to be certain of success. Assuming a garrison of 1500, this means that Argentina would need to move sufficient troops to land 4500 troops on the ground to conduct the attack. More troops would be needed to provide support, and logistical work. Let's assume 5500 troops are needed to be certain of putting the attack force together.

Firstly, the Argentine navy doesn't have the ability to conduct an amphibious operation carrying 5500 troops. In fact, very few navies do. Even the Royal Navy, arguably one of the worlds more potent amphibious forces, would struggle to deliver more than 1500 personnel in its current structure. To successfully land the troops, supplies and equipment needed to crack MPA in a conventional assault, Argentina would need to be build the world's second largest amphibious force, develop the doctrine and training required to ensure that they could land successfully, and then ensure that their troops are capable of doing so without messing the plan up. These troops are then required to land, march a significant distance to the objective and conduct an assault against a well dug in force which is likely to expecting them. Significantly, this force will have got a reasonable amount of operational experience, compared to an Argentine force which hasn't seen action for 30 years. The Argentines are expected to do this while maintaining complete surprise, as if the reinforcement plan starts, and more UK troops are flown in, then they go from 3-1 ratio, to likely 1-1, or worse. Oh, all the while, Argentina needs to maintain the element of complete surprise while building up, training and delivering this invasion force to the Islands.

The other key point - if Argentina has built an amphibious fleet, and then sails it with deliberate intent to the islands, it needs to be certain that the UK maritime assets have been denied. Otherwise, they will need to be prepared to encounter a range of maritime capabilities, potentially including nuclear submarines, that will present a significant tactical challenge.

The final point - this attack has to be done in a manner which denies the defending forces the ability to operate, and for their commander to feel he has no option but to surrender, and this has to be done in under 24 hours, or else reinforcements will arrive. This would require an untested force engaging a defensive force which has spent 30 years preparing the ground for this fight. The fight will have to occur on the defenders terms, and would pose an enormous tactical challenge to the aggressor.

There is some suggestion in some quarters of fantastical ideas of cruise liners disgorging SF into Stanley - which would be a challenge given the lack of adequate berths, or alternatively somehow capturing the town. While this would be challenging, it still comes back to the earlier issue of a lack of manpower to actually get on the ground, and also the fact that MPA is the centre of gravity. In extremis, the loss of Stanley would not lose the UK hold on the islands. MPA is the key, and it remains a well defended installation.

While much remains uncertain, and while this author deeply hopes that such a situation is never tested for real, he would suggest that any potential attack against the islands using current Argentine ORBATS would result in a very bloody and humiliating defeat for Argentina, and one that is completely unnecessary.

UK policy is not to lose the islands in the first place - the author would suggest that the current force laydown ensures that this remains a realistic policy goal.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The simply grotesque attack on MOD civil servants

The author unsurprisingly found the recent report by the HCDC select committee on the current rounds of armed forces redundancies to be a fascinating use of selective quoting, and reporting top make out that not one civil servant has been made redundant, and that 40% of our brave boys are being made redundant by callous uncaring civil servants. To add insult to injury, the resident Quisling, Frau Brennan claimed that the civil service was far more flexible than the military. Clearly, a time for outrage.

The truth, as ever, is far more challenging. This author is increasingly concerned at the attitude of the HCDC towards the MOD civil service - rather than seeing it as an essential supporting body to enable defence, the HCDC increasingly regards us as a vile organisation, urgently needing to be culled at all costs. One of the worst offenders is James Arbuthnot, who repeatedly makes snide comments to the PUS, chosing to mangle her phrases in order to get cheap headlines, most likely to try and revive his own flagging political career.

The reality is that comparing military and civilian career structures is very difficult. The CS exists to provide a large body of manpower, at varying grades of responsibility, across Defence. By and large this means that it is much easier to post people within the MOD CS as at any one time there may be dozens of opportunities nationwide to redeploy people into different posts. Many of the skills required by CS are primarily process driven, rather than technical in nature. Therefore while the post may require some reading in and training, it is less likely to require in depth technical training.

The other difference is that the CS does not up sticks and move places every two years - there is no hugely complex manpower plot to maintain, where career managers know that moving person X may impact on persons Y and Z. There is also no career plot for promotion - instead promotion occurs when vacancies arise. This means that the CS career pool is much easier for people to theoretically move around in at any one level, as people are broadly interchangeable, and can move around.

By contrast, the military career structure is designed around providing fixed numbers of bodies at specific ranks and trades to do a wide variety of jobs. This means people have to train for many years to acquire specialist skills, and often move within a very small career area - for instance nuclear engineers will generally move between different submarine or engineering postings, with the odd broader tour. It is entirely possible for small niche branches to have very localised manning, where everyone knows everyone else, and promotion is quite literally deadmans shoes. The author can think of a couple of RN specialisations which have 10-20 people in them.

The problem from a redeployment perspective is that once past initial training, and once embarked into career postings, retraining is a slow and expensive business. You cannot go from being a sonar maintainer one day, to suddenly being an aircrew survival equipment maintainer the next. It would take months, if not years to retrain people to do jobs outside their core branch areas. Yes, there is a common appointments system, which means that there are jobs which can be done by people from any branch or specialisation, but these are not really intended as careers - more career development posts.

So, the reality is that its actually incredibly hard to redeploy forces personnel - not because they're not flexible - they are. The problem is from the view of how you use them - by the time you've retrained someone and put them in, you may as well have recruited a new person in the first place and got a longer return of service out of them.

Therefore, what PUS was trying, albeit in an incredibly poor way, to say was that it is easier to move CS personnel into new broader postings quickly than military personnel, who by dint of their skills are more difficult to retrain quickly.

To this authors mind, one of the the more damning aspects of the report isn't the misreported comments from PUS, but the fact that on the recent early release scheme, 15000 civil servants (1 in 5 serving civil servants) felt they wanted to apply for redundancy. This is just the first of three tranches, and yet one in five wanted to leave the department. This should surely be ringing alarm bells - particularly as many of the people leaving have skills such as project management, intelligence analysis, scientific, procurement or other useful backgrounds which will denude the department of skills. Its all very well having a flexible workforce, but if all the people who can do the job have left, how do you train their replacements?

This author loves working in defence - he is incredibly proud of what he has done for the department over the years. But he will confess to having done the sums to work out if it it was worth taking a risk and jumping ship. There is an utter crisis of morale going on in the MOD CS right now. Publicly reviled, subject to a stunningly malicious campaign by the tabloids suggesting that to be a public servant is akin to being a banker or paedophile, and knowing that your pay is frozen and job prospects diminishing is enough to make anyone think twice about staying.

Its a desperate time to be a civil servant. No one expects to be popular doing this job. But the sheer level of hatred being directed against us by MPs and the media is quite scary. Talking to others, one is left with the strong perception that many feel that we have no political supporters, we have no sign of any military senior leadership standing up to support us. We have no homegrown PUS who is willing to stand up and lead their department through a time of immense turmoil and challenge and who if you believe whispers in the gossip columns only got the job because no one else applied for it.
This is what should be worrying HCDC - we are people who genuinely give a damn about defending Britain. We're not charismatic, we're often very odd, and we will never see adoring documentaries made about what we do ("Day 284 in Main Building and today Sir Humphrey has managed to file 3 whole paperclips...). Its true that some people think that some CS can considered to be idle or lazy, more concerned with their overtime payments and going home promptly, but equally others would argue that the same can be said of some members of the armed forces.

The problem is that we bring a set of special skills and experience to the table to help support the military. We understand this department, we're passionate about defence and we're passionate about trying to help those who go in harms way. Thousands of us (including the author) have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and often come under fire in order to do our job to help support the troops. We really care, and we want to make a difference, but right now too many of us feel completely abandoned by the military we support, and seen as the vile lazy benefit scroungers of the Defence world.

I dont want to be loved as a civil servant. I do want my MPs though to really question my senior leadership - I want them to pry deeply into why thousands of my peers are leaving. I want them to ask why morale is collapsing and why core skills and knowledge are being lost forever and I want them to really understand how attacking the MOD civil service is causing as much damage to the security of this nation as any direct physical attack by another state.

I am Sir Humphrey. I am proud to be a civil servant and support the front line. I just wish my civilian and military leadership and political masters were as proud of my colleagues and I and what we try to do for them too.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

"Up to Four Tankers" - The RFA and the quiet death of British Maritime Strategy

One of the authors favourite websites (www.thinkdefence.co.uk) has a regular round up of Hansard answers. Over the years, the author has done his fair share of Parliamentary questions, and enjoys the mental challenge offered by trying to answer the question in a way which is neither informative, politically damaging or terribly exciting (in other words, a political party manifesto...). One particular recent question though caught the authors eye -
 Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex, Conservative)To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many RFA tankers are to be ordered in the MARS programme.
Peter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative): We have received the final bids for the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) Tankers programme and anticipate announcing the winning bid later this spring. Up to four MARS tankers are expected to be ordered.
This is a most revealing answer, as all of a sudden the phrase of death 'up to' has been inserted. Sir Humphrey loves the phrase 'up to' - its a wonderfully powerful phrase, which can be used to placate angry MPs, irate members of the public and Daily Mail readers that all is well, and let them think that our current military capability will be replaced by 'Up to' X, Y, or Z units.
What 'up to' really means is 'up to this amount if we ever find sufficient money and the planning round balances, and the Army don't suddenly find a requirement to send whichever obscure  unit hasn't had a damn good war for a decade to go to OP HERRICK and the RAF suddenly discover they can downgrade their aircrew to a 4* hotel in future'. In other words, 'up to' means 'no chance at all of that number ever being bought, but it sounds good in press releases and thats what really matters.
The announcement that MARS may drop to less than four tankers is extremely unwelcome news indeed. For most of the last century, since oil fuel became the accepted mode of fuel, and particularly since WW2, the RN's ability to operate globally and unilaterally, with minimal reliance on shore support for its fighting units (stand fast the RFA), is down to prolonged investment in a large fleet of naval tankers and support ships.
To say the current fleet of tankers is long in the tooth is no understatement. The RN tanker fleet, for much of the past decade has been built up of two brand new fleet tankers (the Wave class), three smaller fleet tankers built in the 1970s (the Rover class) and four support tankers (collectively known as the Leaf class) dating from the 1980s. This was deemed sufficient to support a fleet of 25-30 escorts, two carriers and a small number of amphibious ships operating in four fixed locations - West Indies, Falklands, Gulf and home waters, and also support task group deployments and refits.
These ships (other than the 'Waves') are very old vessels now. They are single hulled as well, which reduces the ports they can visit. For the last few years, the RNs newest and most potent tankers have been operating almost exclusively in the West Indies and the Gulf, not because they are necessarily the right ships for the job, but because they are the only dual hulled tankers in service.
The RN tanker fleet is now five strong (two waves, two rovers, one leaf). It has been brought down massively in size as the escort fleet reduced, and during the lean years of the noughties when ships were paid off into long term reserve to cover the impact of the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan on the defence budget.
Their replacements (the MARS project) has been ever more delayed. Originally the order for six tankers was due in 2005, which then slipped to 2007, which has now slipped to 2012. All of the ships should have been in service now, but instead the contract has merely been let and re-let time and again. The problem is that the tankers simply arent seen as a high enough priority in the spending round, at a time when all manner of other equipment needed replacing - who will support tankers for jaunts into the Caribbean at a time when troops are dying in Helmand, ostensibly due to a lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles?
As such, the RN is now in an incredibly difficult position. Its operating a tanker fleet where most ships are probably older than most of their crew, and is doing so with no sign of the desperately needed replacements ever showing up. Its almost inevitable that the MODs reputation in the shipping industry must be near rock bottom - it keeps trying to buy ships, failing to find the money and then missing the opportunity to acquire good ships at cheap prices. Had the tankers been ordered in 2007/2008 then it would have been a great chance to acquire good hulls cheaply as the world economic crisis hit. As it is, its doubtful that MOD will get anywhere near as good a deal again.
What does all this mean for the RN? Bluntly, if as is now being hinted, three, or possibly only two tankers are a likely buy, then it means the end of the Royal Navy's ability to operate globally as an independent force.
A buy of three MARS tankers, coupled with the two Waves will give the RFA a total of five tankers to operate. Current defence planning assumptions mean that the RN (and RFA) need to sustain a tanker in the West Indies, the South Atlantic and the Gulf. Thats three hulls permanently committed. A further tanker is required to deliver support to home operations and conduct sea training. This leaves one spare tanker, which will have to fill in for other vessels in refit, and maybe have ocassional spare capacity to do separate missions. In addition there is one AOR (Fort Victoria) theoretically assigned as support to the Carrier, but she is getting older, and also does stores duties too, and recently seems to spend most of her time east of Suez conducting anti-piracy drills.
The net result is that in future, if the RN wants to send a task force overseas, then its either going to have to strip homewaters of the duty tanker, or rely on the  task force getting out to its operational area and linking up with the duty tanker in theatre. This means a heavier reliance on the AOR fleet, which will find themselves doing tanking duties, and also a major reliance on allied navies.
In other words, the RN is about to lose the ability to surge a task force to sea with integrated tanking support and do so while still sustaining all other operations. Previously its been able to deploy extra vessels to sea in support of a crisis, wheras now, if there is a crisis in one region, then the chances are that the RN will not be able to respond with stripping assets and capabilities from another area.
This marks a further decline in the RNs ability to operate as a global navy - and merely accelerates its headfirst decline towards a second division navy, albeit one with a very expensive aircraft carrier carrying a mighty six jets due in service in 2020.
Maritime logistics is not cool , exciting or sexy. What it is though is the means by which this nation has for centuries sought to exert power and influence overseas. While the buy of less than four MARS tankers will not end British Maritime Power, it will massively change the confines by which we plan operations, and support them. As a nation we will in future need to accept either increased reliance on port access, or have to decide which operational theatre will have to do without its tanker in order to meet higher priority objectives.
Who is to blame for this debacle? This author doesnt feel inclined to blame politicians of either hue. No Minister is interested in tankers or stores ships - they want to be filmed holding a mini-gun or in the company of Our Brave (soon to be made redundant) Boys. They should be seen as culpable for not holding the real decision makers - the Defence Council and Service Chiefs to account for this. The blame probably lies with the RN, for failing to assign sufficient funding in planning rounds to get MARS through the round and into an order. The inability to put MARS funding at the top of the planning round tree has helped save other aspects of the RN, but runs the risk of pulling the rug from our entire maritime strategy.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Why the MOD was arguably right to spend £1.1m on consultants for SDSR disposals.

Travelling on the tube today, Humphrey noted the story in the Evening Standard about 'MPs outrage' that the MOD had spent £1.1m on consultants since the SDSR to advise on disposals http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24030047-mps-outraged-as-consultants-get-pound-11m-from-deal-to-axe-harriers.do

Notwithstanding the fact that the author is outraged just about every time he reads his MPs expenses claim forms, or hears verbatim just badly certain MPs behaved during trips to Operational Theatres (allegedly some very bad behaviour indeed (allegedly)), the question remains, do they have a point in being outraged?

Humphries emphatic answer is NO. Its very easy to get worked up when you read about consultants, they tend to be portrayed as the sort of slimy morally absent creatures who are more concerned with sneaking a glance at your watch prior to telling you the time and then billing you for the experience. The idea that public money is being used to get advice from them, particularly when something is being scrapped, is an easy way to win public outrage, get free headlines, and not really understand why the MOD is doing what is doing.

In this case, as Humphrey understands it, the MOD has  contracted the services of a highly specialised group of consultants to provide some bespoke advice on areas where the department had either no expertise, or needed external guidance. It stands to reason that if the department had the expertise in house, then it wouldn't have needed to bring the contractors in - but the reality is that the department doesn't have the expertise anymore. People don't understand how much in house experience has gone - a process arguably begun in 1994, and exacerbated through the 1998 SDR and beyond. This ties into the wider public / Daily Mail argument that anyone in government service is a parasite of the state, and therefore should be disposed (preferably with extreme violence).

The MOD is caught between two equally strong poles of outrage here - on the one hand people are angry that it is bringing in external consultants to advise on disposals. So the argument goes, this is a sign that the MOD has too much money, and is staffed by inept individuals who know not what they are doing. Yet at the same time, had MOD not divested itself of the experts, or had chosen not to bring in consultants, then the headlines would run that MOD was massively overstaffed by inept individuals who don't know how to get the best return on public money when disposing of kit, and why didn't they seek to get private sector involvement in the first place.

Right now MOD is trying to handle the twin challenges of downsizing its workforce - many of whom are tired, demoralised and in no mood to play nicely, and also downsize its equipment holdings. The skills needed to do this are either nonexistent, or the people who can do it are moving away as fast as they can. The MOD needs to recoup every penny possible from the disposal of assets to help solve the incredible financial spending legacy of the last Government (and having seen the figures, it is quite scary how big the problem was for the equipment programme). Humphrey believes it is better to spend money on getting some real specialists in, in order to help get the best possible return for the taxpayer, rather than making a false economy and not doing so, thus scoring cheap political short term brownie points, and long term damaging headlines.

More seriously, this indicates the way the department will have to go in future. Vast swathes of knowledge, often built up over decades of experience, are being lost forever. The rumoured additional 9000 cuts to the MOD CS will make this even worse. The public have to be brought around to the idea that less money means less knowledge, and this means when even relatively basic things need doing, the external consultants need to be brought in for assistance. Its not nice, its not politically popular, but if its the only way that the MOD will be able to do that which its political masters seek of it, then surely there is no other way?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Bagpipes, Bayonets, Bluster and Bugger all else? The fallacies of the SNPs current defence policy.

Bagpipes, Bayonets, Bluster and Bugger all else? The fallacies of the SNPs current defence policy.
Sir Humphrey noted with interest the recent comments on the likelihood of the SNP adopting a defence force optimised for fairly international commitments in the event of Scotland becoming an independent nation.

From the outset, the author wishes to be clear - he has a strictly personal view that the Union is stronger with Scotland playing a role in it, but equally, if they do become an independent country, then good luck to Scotland. However, he has real concerns that the current proposed Scottish Defence Forces seem to be based more on a quick Google of cool sounding military terminology, and not on any sensible discussion about the resources a small nation of 5 million people is realistically going to have to spend on Defence.

In this article, Humphrey wants to raise a few pointers - not to say that the ideas concerned are wrong, but that a lot of work needs to go into making sure that a Scottish Defence Force (SDF) would really work.

At the moment, the current policy seems to be that on separation, those army regiments deemed Scottish will become part of the SDF. Similarly, an equivalent amount of manpower, roughly 1/8th of all UK military assets and personnel will be offered to the Scottish Government. In broad-brush terms, this leads to an Army of about 10,000 troops, 5,000 air force and 4000 navy/marines (say 19,000 overall).

Here is where the fun really starts. Firstly, the armed forces do not neatly break into component parts which can be divided up. An infantry battalion may have 650 people on its strength, but there may be many more from supporting arms such as REME and so on who will be there to maintain and support weapons and equipment. Do the SNP want to take the supporting arms too?

Secondly - how will they attribute manpower against specialisations - the RN for instance has a deeply specialised manpower structure, made up of composite branches - it's not just a mixy blob of 30,000 sailors looking good and drinking rum prior to catching the eye of hairy women with tatoos, it's a collection of branches and capabilities. Does the SNP want 1/8th of each branch - in which case do they want Officers, SNCOs or Juniors and how will they maintain career structures? Bearing in mind that they are unlikely to want the Submarine service (some 5000 strong), and that the Royal Marines are 7000 strong, this means they only have a pool of 18000 sailors to chose from. Oh wait, what about the Fleet Air Arm, which is another 3000 strong - suddenly that 4000 strong navy needs to be recruited from 15000 sailors. In manning terms, that akin to taking every single surface ship crew member and providing them to the Scottish Government.

The next point - does the SNP want serving personnel who are one deep? In other words, if they took a ship or Squadron, do they want to take those personnel on the ship, or take a ratio of 3:1 (e.g. 3 pilots or Int Analysts for every front line spot). They may get more up front equipment this way, but they will have no depth for courses, support or training / leave. In other words, when that person moves on, they will then have no one to replace them.

Another point - will they get units or people? You can't make someone serve in a foreign armed forces at separation. Surely every member of HM Forces will have to be given the option of transferring, and if they don't want to move, will not be force to go. What happens if insufficient people volunteer to join the SDF - will the SNP insist on their being forcibly transferred? That sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen, and it's hardly sensible to rely on a defence force full of people that don't actually want to belong to it.

The author knows relatively few individuals who would willingly wish to transfer to any SDF. Most of the Scots personnel he knows are immensely proud of being Scottish, but are also equally proud of belonging to something much greater in the form of HM Armed Forces. They relish the challenge offered by soldiering in a military that has a track record for being employed aggressively overseas. How many of them will willingly want to transfer to a SDF that is unlikely to be used in any similar manner?

The SDF is going to have a challenging initial few years - it will inherit people at all levels, but probably not enough for any one role. It's going to take time to grow personnel into the jobs required of them, and even if it started recruiting on the day of independence, it would still take 5-10 years to grow the critical mass of SNCOs and junior officers needed to manage and lead the organisation.

As for pay - does the SNP factor in the extremely high personnel cost of UK military troops. Over 50% of the UK military earn in excess of £26,000 per year, and that's not including allowances. Assuming a median salary of 30,000, that's potentially a salary bill in excess of £500m per year, not including pensions, allowances and so on. Is the SNP prepared to fund the huge personnel costs of a 19,000 strong military on its current T&C, or is it going to implement a pay cut to fund its troops?

That isn't just rhetoric - the SNP wants high tech, capable equipment, which require people with skills and experience to maintain. If they know that their transferable skills (particularly aviation or engineering), can be used to bring pay rises elsewhere, it's going to be hard to persuade them to stay in. The MOD has to pay a fortune in retention payments every year for pinch point trades - if the SNP aspires to operate similar grade UK kit, then it will have to do the same thing. How much will this cost?

A key point to note is that historically, UK military training for technical skills has been conducted south of the border, or in Wales. The SDF will not inherit any major technical training facilities or schools, and no officer training academies or staff colleges. It will be required to either construct these at very significant costs indeed (look at the cost of the various defence training colleges that the UK has invested in, in recent years), or it will be reliant on UK support to train its people at anything beyond a fairly basic level of capability.

Generating a basic level of military training is easy - anyone can, with some instruction, function as a basic soldier. However, what the SDF will require to work effectively is not basic soldiers, but it will need to grow a staff capability and an SNCO cadre. There will be inherited personnel, but these will be from a range of backgrounds and ages, and not all will be young. There will need to be major work from the SDF to establish the command cadre needed to manage and lead SDF troops, and also train them too.

While the SNP may continue to rely on wider UK facilities, it should realistic to the likelihood that these facilities will not come free of charge. The UK does a great line in International Defence Training, and provides a range of training to many different countries. But, spaces are limited and this training is expensive and keenly sought after. The SDF may be able to get some spaces to assist with training, but it is unlikely that it would credibly get more than 1-2 per year on most courses, and they would almost certainly pay full market rate (some tens of thousands of pounds per person). There is a real danger that the SDF may find itself unable to afford a training academy, and unable to get training places to train its staff.

Similarly, the same arguments apply for the many technical schools that will be needed to run courses in maintenance of all the equipment that the SDF will inherit. They will either need to find the personnel and funds to create a training school and logistics support, or pay market rate for access to UK or other courses.

One thing is clear - the newly formed SDF is going to find itself beholden on a small cadre of officers to lead it through change. It will have to pay an immense amount of money to establish itself  as an armed force, and will remain reliant on the UK and other nations for training for many years to come, at a very substantial financial cost.

Equipment / Bases
What is clear immediately from reading the SNP policy is that they wish to use UK current equipment that they inherit. This is fine, providing there is an understanding that its either going to cost a fortune to operate some equipment, will cost even more to replace it in due course, and that they probably won't inherit any training schools, so will be reliant on the UK largesse for access to workshops for updating it.

What is urgently needed is a clear plan which goes beyond the initial divvying up of assets and sets out in clear  terms what any Scottish defence industrial strategy would be. At some point within 10-15 years of independence, Scotland would be in the market for new equipment or life extension programmes. Either this is funded internally using Scottish manpower (which requires the establishment of a Scottish defence industry), or it is farmed out to UK and beyond for tender. There is a large bill attached to any such move like this, so it would be advisable for the SNP to look in depth at just how much it would cost to re-equip the SDF, as this is a bill that will hit soon after independence.

Similarly, there needs to be a reality check on the future of the Naval presence in Scotland - the SNP have already said they will operate one naval base. The key question is whether they are willing to close Rosyth, or Faslane? Some SNP politicians cling to the idea that the UK will continue to place ship orders and refit work north of the border after independence. Humphrey would suggest that this is unlikely in the extreme - no UK chancellor would willingly give money or work to a Scottish shipyard if it meant reduced work for UK shipyards.

Similarly, the refit work at Rosyth will come to an end, and the construction skills at Clydebank will be at serious risk. Its less likely that foreign nations will bid for naval construction in an independent Scotland - part of the deal with foreign work is the support and training that comes with it. For instance, HMS COLLINGWOOD is home to a large international audience of officers who train in the equipment used on ships built or bought from the UK. Unless Scotland invests heavily in naval training schools which can teach the equipment, weapons and missiles installed on warships built in Clydebank, it becomes increasingly unlikely that foreign orders would go to Scotland - as  a nation they simply would not be able to deliver the wider support expected of any modern warship contract.

The Reality
Scotland could easily become independent, and if they do, then an SDF is a potential force in the making. However, it is not as simple as putting out a nice policy paper and saying that you want Scotland to have a naval base, aircraft and an army brigade. The level of support, the training facilities, the maintenance and so on does not exist to support this capability at present. It could exist, but it would come with a very large bill attached.

The SDF will find itself reliant on the UK armed forces for decades to come, and this in turn is reliant on the UK being willing to host and support them. If anything, Scotland will be more tied to the UK for support to its defence, and its status as an autonomous nation will be more entwined with the UK post independence than before. For while Scotland relies on the UK to provide the training, equipment, maintenance and logistics needed to keep the SDF operating, it could be argued that Scotland is not truly independent at all. At the heart of the entire debate is the harsh reality that an SDF will cost the Scottish taxpayer a great deal, but leave Scotland ever more beholden to the UK or some other friendly nation for help and assistance.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Unbelievably Orribly Rippedoff (UOR) -Or why with the £6 million aircraft, the headline figure is not what it seems...

The £6 million aircraft - why the headline figure is not what it seems...
Humphrey took an interest recently in reports that the RAF is acquiring 2 BAe 146 aircraft to conduct passenger transport in Afghanistan to fill the gap left by the overstretched C130 fleet. The total reported cost is £6 million to provide a capability, probably until 2015, or whenever final withdrawal is due. This report attracted negative comment on some websites, with well informed commentators suggesting that the planes had been offered to commercial firms for 1/3rd of that price recently and that the MOD was being ripped off. The author confidently expects to see a 'useless MOD civil servants ripped off again' headline appearing in short order by whichever journalist trawls that site looking for stories.

This is an interesting debate - was the MOD ripped off, or is this another case where people are comparing chalk and cheese? The author has some experience of dealing with the provision of urgent operation requirements, and how they are funded, and suspects that there is a lot of misinformation being broadcast here.

In the first instance, it may well be the case that a private company was offered the aircraft for £2 million. That may well have been the basic cost for a transfer of ownership with no work or modifications made. In the MODs case though, it's not as simple as saying the MOD has paid £6 million for the 2 aircraft. In reality, this figure almost certainly covers a raft of costs which a normal commercial aircraft would not have to consider - military modifications to communications, stores, and other key equipment. A defensive aids suite would have to be fitted as well to enable to aircraft to operate without running a high risk of being shot down in theatre. It's likely a wide range of other issues have to be dealt with to ensure that the aircraft is able of acting as a military aircraft, and not as a civilian aircraft painted military colours (a key difference). By the time you add in the initial purchase of stores, plus the cost of moving and placing stores and supplies in places like Bastion and Kabul, and suddenly that figure of £6million is starting to look reasonable value for money.

The problem the MOD has is that it doesn't do a good enough job of explaining that when it spends money, it's not just a case of buying the kit and then using it. As the author used to say in briefings - buying UOR modifications is easy, it's the integrating it with all the other kit to ensure everything still works as intended that's the real problem. Doubtless part of the cost will be that of ensuring that the aircraft can still work and fly, and that by fitting new kit, the MOD isn't ensuring that its bought kit which will inadvertently switch off the engines in mid flight, or some other major catastrophe. This may sound flippant, but integration is critical, and if skimped on, or not done properly, then people's lives are at stake.

Some have asked why the MOD can't buy spare C130s? Firstly, the C130K is going out of service, partly as a result of previous planning rounds and the SDSR. The support network to keep it going is no longer in place, the crews are disbanding and the training staff are not present any more. It would be extortionately expensive to keep a flight of 2 C130K's in service for 4 years, and require major expenditure (almost certainly far beyond £6 million) to do this. As the RN has discovered to its cost, the only real savings that can be accrued from aircraft fleets really occur when the fleet itself is taken out of service. Anything prior to this requires a whole raft of maintenance, support, technical issues and training schools. That's not to say it couldn't be done, but it could be done at a much higher cost than getting 2 x BAe 146 in service.

There is also a dearth of nations with surplus C130 J models hanging around - it's incredibly unlikely that they'd be willing to lease one to the UK for 4 years - particularly as the airframe would return utterly shagged, and in dire need of replacement. There is no money in the pot for new C130s, especially as the fleet is being taken out of service by roughly 2020-2025, and there is no money available to increase the airframe fleet. Moreover, the purchase of new C130s would not be in keeping with the requirement of UORs - namely that it's an urgent and operationally specific requirement which can't be solved by the Equipment Programme. This author would suggest that the C130J is not unique, not specific and definitely not an answer to a UOR.

So, the RAF has found itself faced with three options -

  1.            Run on C130K for 4 more years at vast cost.
  2.            Acquire sufficient C130Js to generate the task lines to support HERRICK at vast  cost.
  3.            Acquire cheap transports at minimal cost and run them into the ground.

With a bit of analysis, not only does the proposed solution seem fairly sensible, but it seems a good use of resources. It eases the pressure on the massively overworked C130 fleet (and helps restore harmony time, and provide tactical transports for other tasks, such as generating parachute training again). Of course it's not the perfect solution (the author personally suspects that in an ideal world, additional C130J frames would probably have been the DS solution if money were no object), but in the absence of money in the Equipment Programme, the procurement of 146s is probably the most pragmatic and cost efficient solution.

Naturally the author expects the MOD to be roundly chastised for its actions by all and sundry - proof then that its probably done the right thing!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Since when is a jewellery purchase actually a clocking in machine?

Since when is a jewellery purchase actually a clocking in machine?
The answer it seems is that its when the MOD uses GPC cards to purchase items. The MOD has finally come out and updated its press report coverage and confirmed that the expenditure on various sundry items which caused various tabloid authors mass outrage the other day is actually nothing of the sort.
As suspected by the author, the bills that were being assessed were in fact GPC card bills. The GPC is a brilliant invention - its easy to use, very easy to audit, and more importantly massively reduces staff time and hassle for authorising expenses claims. The one weakness in the system though is that when used, the audit reports are based on what the vendor classifies their merchant type trade as. In this case, the so called MOD jewellery spend was actually with a very specialised clock merchant, who received an annual support contract for a clocking in machine.
So, the reality of it is that the MOD CS hasn't been swanning around the world having a super jolly at public expense. Also, this incident shows that the GPC is brilliant, but that its reports need to be issued with a large health warning that anyone can understand - namely that what the reported expenditure is, is not necessarily what the actual expenditure was.
You'd think that was an easy thing to understand - but clearly not! As the year progresses, the author expects articles of moral outrage to continue, as poorly informed journalists continue on their crusade to make out that the civil service is the devil incarnate. Every release of expenses, every FOI listing GPC expenditure will provide easy headlines which make the MOD look stupid and further depress peoples already low morale.
The author has two massive frustrations here. Firstly, the fact that having misled the public, it is highly unlikely that any paper will bother to print a clarification or correction. Indeed, its likely that the next time they need a cheap headline on this subject, the jewellery expenditure will be kicked up. If public servants were as willingly negligent as the press in reporting matters, we'd be fired. Instead, the press seem to sit back and print lies, and have the audacity to assume that they will never be questioned.
The second frustration is the fact that MOD press seem to do so little to fight the corner of the MOD. Instead of issuing a one paragraph update on a Monday, long after the story has blown out of the way, they should have got a senior officer in and on the airwaves to absolutely demolish this story. It feels at times like MOD PR is only interested in covering good news stories about HM Forces, and not standing up for civil servants. This author remembers when we were being attacked left right and centre over the bonuses, not a single senior officer was allowed to publicly defend the civil service. Its one thing accepting that the tabloids don't like you, but it would be nice if for once your own media team would try to be a little more assertive in stopping this sort of story.
While the author suspects that MOD media will claim that they can't possibly do this, he can't help but feel that if papers were told 'no more jollies to Afghanistan, no more exclusives, no more access to fun stuff that sells copy, until you report the truth and not your perverted version of events' then things would change. Editors want to sell papers - denying them access may seem harsh, but if they aren't prepared to report the truth, then why should we give them access in the first place?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The season for recycling rubbish - A round up of the Papers latest defence myths...

Several items have caught the authors eye over the last few days. Firstly, the article in the Sunday times, later repeated in the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2086974/Royal-Navy-spends-50bn-new-fighter-jets-land-aircraft-carriers.html) which claimed that the RNs new JCA (Joint Combat Aircraft), couldn't land on an aircraft carrier.

On paper this sounds extremely embarrassing - who on earth would buy a plane which can't actually land? Clearly the MOD is staffed by buffoons and incompetents, and anyone who works for them should be sacked and ritually tarred with white feathers etc etc.

The truth is a little more prosaic - there is a small issue with the F35 at the moment. That's why it is in testing - to find out what doesn't work, and then fix the problems so that it does work! Modern aircraft are complicated beasts, and do require a lot of work to ensure that everything comes together. Is it embarrassing that there is a problem - probably, it's never nice to find an issue, but equally, this is an aircraft which is 5 years from its initial in service date, and a lot has to be sorted before it gets there. The situation is akin to saying that because a car on a car test track has a minor and easily fixable technical problem, then the entire series production should be cancelled - before its even entered service. The reality is that every aircraft type in history has encountered problems at the testing stage. The author would be more worried if there were no problems emerging on the JCA, as he would then wonder what was really going on.

What is perhaps more interesting is that this story highlights the way the journalists rely on poor sourcing for their stories. It seems the original minor news broke on a website, and was flagged up on one particular site based in the UK. It then bounced about a few aviation forums a bit as the owner of the site sought to flag up all the issues with the plane and joyfully predict the end of the F35 world. The story was then picked up by Mick Smith, and published in the Sunday Times.

The unfortunate reality is that the website which flagged up the situation is run by someone violently opposed to the existence of the F35, and who has many issues with it. As far as this author can make out, the document was 'sexed up' in the worst possible light to get attention and conform with the website owners personal views. This was noted by posters on other sites, and some questions raised over the validity of some of the claims.

Personally, the author thinks the whole incident sums up how lazy some journalists are now. Rather than file proper copy, some journalists appear to think it is acceptable to lift stories wholesale from websites, seemingly without bothering to check whether there may be a bias to said site, or whether there was more to this than meets the eye. Now, because of this, the CVF saga has gained another damaging piece of media PR simply because a journalist decided to run a story based on the hype of an immensely biased website. What happened to basic research standards?

MOD Credit Card Splurge?
The Daily Mail reports that the MOD has somehow spent millions on all manner of odd things including toys, gym equipment and jewellery in the last year. While this has been found out from information on receipts, there is definitely something a little odd about this story.

Firstly, the current MOD claim system would never, ever, allow someone to make a claim for the things being discussed in the story.( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2086711/MoD-blew-1million-luxuries-year-4-000-jobs-axed.html). Given the incredible depths to which claims are now scrutinised (Humphrey has seen 3* Officers need to request 4* approval for an Easyjet flight), he is sceptical that the expenditure is as it is claimed to be.

The next issue is that if the claims are lifted from GPC cards, then they may be drawn from a set of fairly generic headings, rather than covering what was actually bought. As odd as it sounds, use of the GPC is categorised fairly blandly in records, making it hard to actually ascertain what may have been bought, and why. Additionally, all expenditure on GPC cards is scrutinised, so if there was any doubt at all about the veracity of the purchase, then it would have been flagged up.

The other point to note is that you need approval to buy just about anything nowadays in the MOD - you can't walk off and just get what you want and claim it back, never having been audited. Therefore someone must have put together a highly compelling business case to get some of this spending approved - which suggests that there must have been a real need for its purchase.

The final point, it is immensely irritating to again see the idea that only civil servants spend money badly. These reports seem to make out that our brave boys are suffering in the front line, while fat cat civil servants eat caviar and smoke cigars. The reality is that it's just as likely that military personnel were responsible for this expenditure, but the headline 'our brave boys buy jewellery and claim it from taxpayer' doesn't quite have the same ring to it when wanting to maintain the myth of lions led by donkeys, which the current media circus is so keen to propagate.

Tis the Season to Leak Option Papers
The next item to catch the authors attention was the piece in the Sunday Telegraph claiming that the military were looking at disbanding the Parachute battalions (again). This no doubt has elicited loud harrumphs from retired officers across the country, and a general rush of letters to papers / MPs, some of which may actually be scrawled in green ink or blood, that the world as we know it is ending because Defence is getting smaller.

This is exactly the reaction that the person responsible for briefing this situation to the paper was hoping to achieve - adverse media coverage suggesting that a regiment which hasn't carried out its operational role in nearly 60 years may finally be cut down to size.

The reality is more complex - the Department hasn't made any decision yet on future army structure or size - it needs to get through OP HERRICK and then out to 2015 prior to making some tough decisions on force lay down. What the Paras seem to be doing is preparation of the battlespace, to drum up a media firestorm to persuade ministers conscious of opinion polls that the last thing they should do is sack paras. Instead, why not pick on some poor county regiment, or laundry & mobile bath unit that is nowhere near as crazily airborne, and are quite clearly all hats.

The problem is that if the MOD bows to this pressure, it is then impossible to carry out a proper root and branch reform of the military. Cap badge loyalty is immensely strong, and it's natural for people to want to protect their own men, heritage and career prospects. However, the problem is that clinging onto all the 'cool' units, such as the Paras, or the Brigade of Guards means that the Army is ever more imbalanced, relying on light infantry to be scaled to carry out a wide range of duties. Much of the reason why the department is in a financial mess is because it is unable to push through cuts which may be politically unpopular, but financially immensely sensible.

As we approach the season of PR12 cuts, manpower reductions, force changes and the general sense of getting ever smaller, stories such as this will become commonplace. The Paras may have jumped the gun, but the author predicts that within 2-3 weeks, further stories on less tanks, less planes (particularly red arrows) and less ships will be leaking, despite the fact that no decisions have been taken.

Were the author immensely cynical, he'd suspect that there will be a shortage of photocopying paper on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors of MOD Main Building for the next couple of weeks....

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

RAF Recruiting - Hardly a Lesbian Spank Inferno...

One of the authors favourite TV shows is the superb comedy 'Coupling', which at times neatly sums up many of lifes mysteries, including why men like watching porn with lesbians in (the aforementioned 'lesbian spank inferno'). However, tempting as it is to discuss in depth this issue, instead tonight the author wants to raise frustrations over the reaction to the news that the RAF has been nominated as the UKs most lesbian friendly recruiter.

Ignoring the surprise the author felt at the news that such an award even existed, there has been a predictable reaction in some areas, with people getting on with the usual round of comments that the RAF (and wider services) are worse off as a result of taking homosexuals, that it sums up all that is wrong with management priorities and that Trenchard must be spinning in his grave etc.

As ever this sort of story seems deliberately designed to inflame peoples opinions - the concept that the MOD is more focused on being a good employer for Lesbians than it is about sending brave Jimmy his body armour and personal helicopter. There must clearly be an agenda, doubtless put out by bed wetting civil servants on a mission from Brussels to destroy the armed forces ahead of the EU putsch (or some similar nonsense).

The reality is that this award owes nothing to the RAF appointing someone as SO2 'Lesbians, Recruiting Of, Policy Officer' and telling them to win the award or face being the next 'SO2 South Shetlands Liaison Officer' for the rest of their career, but everything to do with the fact that since the ban ended back in 2000, the armed forces as a whole have just cracked on and made people of all colours, backgrounds orientations and religions feel they can apply to join the forces and represent their nation.

The RAF was nominated for this award by the readers of a lesbian / bisexual magazine (a regular audience of 140,000 people). Not by the MOD shoving large brown envelopes of cash to desperate editors to persuade them that we have changed. This is the result of people thinking that our attitudes have changed and that we represent something different now.

In todays society people are ever more tolerant of allowing people express who they are and who they want to be sexually. It is possible that many people who have exceptional talents and who previously wanted to join, but felt they couldnt due to their orientation now feel able to enter the forces and do good work. This is the key point - we as an organisation are in a battle for talent, and its getting ever more difficult. The sort of person we need to recruit now has got to be smart, clever, good with technology, able to handle some incredibly complicated kit and be prepared to make life or death decisions which if they get wrong will see them on the front page of the news, and possibly on trial for War Crimes. We're not in the age of a strategic captain, we're in the age of a Strategic Private - one wrong action, one wrong judgement or one mistake will see someone castigated. We have to ensure that we get the best possible people in to prevent these situations ocurring in the first place.

Its not good enough to turn around and say  sorry to the 140,000 lesbian readers of G3 magazine that no matter how skilled or technical they are, we don't want to recruit them because of their sexual preferences. If we don't take maximum use of the workforce in this country, if we don't try to ensure that people feel they can work for us, then we are ultimately only hurting ourselves. We have to seek every avenue to bring new people into the service with the skills needed to keep this country safe. If that means that the publicity from this award nomination helps encourage bright programmers, linguists or nuclear engineers who happen to be Gay / Lesbian / Bisexual to apply to join, then that is a result as it helps increase personnel in critical shortage areas. One major reason for allowing women into the submarine service is almost certainly to help broaden the pool of potential nuclear engineers who can serve at sea.

The author has always found the attitude of some in society towards the presence of gays in the forces to be extremely odd. Many people protest loudly that its just not good enough, that there is no guarantee that in the event of a crisis that their mind won't be on the job, and that its just not acceptable letting gay men see other men naked, or that they won't behave appropriately.

Humphrey has served overseas in both TELIC and HERRICK (the joy of being a reservist). Along with many friends, he has been in some fairly dodgy situations, and had things land close to him that could have easily got him killed. To his knowledge, neither the author, nor his acquaintances have ever been propositioned by a same sex serviceperson during an IDF or mortar attack, or during a patrol outside the wire. Maybe the author is just losing his sex appeal  or maybe its because its the sort of ridiculous stereotype promulgated by people who don't actually know what they are talking about.

Similarly, having seen the conduct of people of all services  and all ranks in the forces on runs ashore, it is clear that straight people hardly have a moral high ground to stand on when it comes to innapropriate, and unprofessional conduct. Do homosexual members of HM Forces misbehave when ashore and act inapropriately - probably. Do heterosexual members of HM Forces do the same thing - absolutely.

Finally, given the near fetish like obsession in some quarters of the forces for cross dressing, Humphrey has always failed to understand the insecurity from some folk outside the forces who feel that the presence of homosexuals will somehow undermine moral standards. A dress is a dress is a dress darling, no matter whether you're male, female, or a little green man from mars...

So to sum up, Humphrey is not quite sure what all the internet rage is really all about. It looks like a storm in a teacup by people who don't understand that there is a vast difference between perception and reality, and that the RAF should rightly be proud that a section of community who until a few years ago were officially forbidden from joining, should now see them as a superb employer of choice.

However, it should be noted that while the world is a lot more PC, the author did have to do a double take today when the story on the MOD intranet about new videos showing support opportunities for veterans was posted next to the story about being nominated for this award. It did take a few seconds for him to realise that the RAF has not posted new videos about opportunities for lesbian recruits - note to self, next time read more slowly...